An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform

A message from David Smith (revised 25 October)

As one of the ‘admins’ of this site I have taken it upon myself to inform you of a recently published booklet by retired bishop Colin Buchanan entitled ‘An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform’.

As well as criticising parliamentarians for their adherence to ‘First-Past-the-Post’ for no better reason than that it gets them elected, he throws out a challenge to Church leaders. He writes as follows:

“As an Anglican Christian it saddens me that the Church of England, which was one of the first public bodies in England ever to adopt the single transferable vote (STV), now practises it but has almost ceased to preach it, and shows intermittent signs of forgetting why it has got it. Thus, during the run up to the 2015 general election, Christian leaders strongly urged that theology and politics are inseparably meshed with each other, and both sketched out issues for voters to address and pressed Christians to use  their vote. But…the shrieking injustice of the first past the post (FPTP) system which was electing our Parliament, was completely ignored by these Christian voices…

First, we have to demonstrate that different electoral systems are not simply a matter of taste or convenience as, for example, the choice of a manual or an automatic drive in a car, but are properly to be judged on a moral scale. Secondly, we are confronted by the MPs of the two main parties – a Westminster with a ‘settled view’ in favour of FPTP –  without visible benefit to our society, are armed to protect themselves from any reform which might threaten their numerical strength in Parliament.”

The most self evident injustice quoted by Buchanan is dis-proportionality – the lack of correspondence nationally between votes and seats. A party with 36.9% of the vote gets 100% of the power. a further 25% of voters secure just 2% of seats in parliament.

Next perhaps is randomness. Where votes are evenly spread a candidate can win with under 25% of the vote, but in others case where there is much tactical voting a candidate with more than 40% of the vote can be defeated.

Parliamentarians know that FPTP is wrong. When the possibility of electing the 2nd chamber using a proportional system was discussed, the objection was that it would give the chamber greater democratic legitimacy than the Commons. Where outside the Westminster bubble would that argument have any traction?

One argument for FPTP is that it delivers single party, and therefore ‘strong’, government. Buchanan points out that this is only achieved by subordinating means to (supposedly) desirable ends. I could quote a dozen reasons why ends obtained by unjust means are unlikely in the event to benefit the majority. But I think we should stick to his simple moral principle; ends should never justify unjust means.

In a closely fought election how often have supporters of party Y received a leaflet from party X claiming, “party Y cannot win here”, and quoting possibly dubious statistics from ‘last time’. Quite part from the uncertainties involved, this poses an unfair and immoral dilemma for party Y supporters – a dilemma I personally constantly face. Do they vote for Y on principle, or for party X (or even party Z), as the least worst option? Again this is consequence of FPTP.

FPTP poses dilemmas for parties too. Parties are forced to consider electoral pacts whereby a party may agree not to contest a seat either in return for a favour in another area or to make way for an independent capable of defeating a corrupt sitting MP. Parties who do that are likely to suffer in the future.

Voters in the 200 or so ‘safe’ constituencies who do not support the sitting MP – and they probably constitute a majority of voters – may live there for 40 or more years knowing their vote will be wasted. In addition, in closely fought constituencies, supporters of third or fourth parties are told their votes are wasted if they do not vote tactically.

MPs are greatly attached to the principle of single member constituencies in which the one MP ‘represents’ all of his or her constituents, and an MP will not respond to the representation of a voter not living in that constituency. There is little reason to think that voters are so enthralled. Even when a voter wishes to take up a personal problem with his or her MP, he or she may be inhibited by the background (e.g. gender, race, political views etc. of the MP). As for trying to get an MP in a safe seat, not of your persuasion to engage with you over an issue, even when you have good evidence, there is little more frustrating and demoralising.

FPTP forces parties to field just one candidate per constituency or other electoral division. Supporters of that party have to like it or lump it, and the safer the seat the more likely it is that he or she will be selected by a narrow caucus, or even ‘parachuted’ in. The Conservative party briefly experimented with selection by open primary, but soon lost its enthusiasm for it when Dr Sarah Wollaston MP (Totnes) challenged government policy on a range of issues. She continues to be an effective backbench MP and chair of the Health select committee. She was returned in 2015 with 53% of the vote, tripling her majority. Open primaries though, do have potential problems, and do nothing to address the problems of dis-proportionality, randomness etc. resulting from single member constituencies. Much better to adopt STV which includes in effect an open primary as well as proportionality.

The booklet is published, and sold by Grove Books, http://www.grovebooks.co.uk, tel: 01223 464748 – quote publication number E178. Colin Buchanan, a former president of the Electoral Reform Society, is currently an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales.

Colin Buchanan has informed me that he has sent copies to both Archbishops and is gradually sending copies to all diocesan bishops. If you know your local bishop however it would do no harm to remind him or her. More realistically you could promote it locally in Anglican churhes and other places of worship.

During the Yes to AV campaign, the idea that parliamentarians should not be the sole arbiters of change or no change – and indeed that their arguments should be regarded as highly suspect was not pushed hard. It might have countered some of the negative campaigning of the No campaign.

The booklet was published before the election of Jeremy Corbyn. There are signs here in Dorset that the Labour Party is rethinking its position on voting reform. The issue is not dead.

We are not making enough use of social media to promote STV (which is the object of this site). Anyone who uses facebook for example should be able to do this. But do keep us informed. For the time being you can contact me on david.smith@aic.co.uk.

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One Response to An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform

  1. Pingback: Can Christians help to Clean up our Politics? | Money and Democracy

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